Every author creates a world for his characters to inhabit, but those working in speculative fiction have to invent one. Contemporary and historical writers have to research theirs. Speculative writers have to research but also design, combine, entwine features from this life and from their mind and imagination into a cohesive whole.
The world a writer builds is made up of more than landscape. It consists of culture and language, politics and religion, alliances and enemies, races and rules, hierarchy and economics, beliefs and superstitions, history and literature.
I say this because a number of reviews, particularly Mike Duran‘s and Katherine Coble‘s, of Patrick Carr‘s novel A Cast of Stones pinpointed worldbuilding as a weakness. In my comments to their posts I concurred, but I have to admit, I began to wonder how accurate the statement was.
As I’ve mentioned once or twice, I deeply felt the lack of a map! I realized as I read without the ability to reference a map, that I wasn’t picturing where places were in reference to one another. I didn’t know where the mountains were or where the gorge ran. I didn’t know how close the sea was, and was surprised to learn that the capital city was on an island (? – I think I have that right). In other words, I didn’t see the world well.
On the other hand, I felt the culture was well established. A messenger system existed. Each town had a tavern/inn that served as a gathering place and to which newcomers went. But they also had a church, and the priest had some authority. For example, the village priest had the power to have someone flogged and thrown into the stocks for drunkenness.
Herbwomen were looked at with suspicion, as if they believed in something unholy. Something unholy did venture in the land–a malus, which would best be compared to an evil spirit. And so did ferrals (a kind of sentient super wolf), though these were an aberration of the norm.
The church had a key part to play in the kingdom but was augmented by the conclave of readers (perhaps the most unique element of the governmental structure) and by the king and the Watch–soldiers dedicated to his protection. Readers were conscripted by the church, whereas serving in the Watch was something reserved for only the most skilled fighters. Both positions required training, so formal education was also a part of this world, at least for some of the people.
The economy depended on trade caravans, and bartering was the standard manner of doing business. People from various parts of the world, with varying physical features and accents based on their place of origin, gravitated to caravan guard jobs.
Other people lived in towns and villages or on farms, each under the oversight of an earl who owed his allegiance to the king. A line existed between commoners and the hierarchy. Even the church and the conclave of readers had their ranking.
All this to say, I actually know quite a bit about the world that author Patrick Carr created. In some ways it does resemble the medieval world of Europe–which required research–but there is also an inventiveness that had to come from his imagination.
Does Carr create a strong sense of place? Well, there’s no mistaking this world for Kansas, or Oz. Could it have been stronger? Undoubtedly. The weakest element, in my opinion, was in the visuals–the description of where the characters were.
Tomorrow I hope to comment on a different Christian speculative novel, one that does, in my opinion, a wonderful job of worldbuilding.
How important is worldbuilding to you when you read fiction? What makes a place feel real to you?